Stuart Bousel processes a callback that was an embarrassment of riches.
I recently had the awesome experience of sitting through the call-backs for Custom Made’s 2014 production of The Crucible, which I will be directing. I say “awesome” because it’s probably the first time in my career I gotten to watch 50+ actors audition their butts off for five hours and have literally all of them be really, really good. No lie: we honestly could have charged admission to the callbacks, they were that entertaining and engaging. I could have easily cast the show three times over with totally different people each time, and been perfectly happy with each version of the cast, that’s how good this pool of performers was.
Alas, as is often the case, I only had 16 slots available, not even a third of the excellent actors I had to choose from. When it came to decision time, I worked really hard to balance my final choices with familiar faces and new ones, people I loved working with along with people I’ve been wanting to work with, while also factoring in all those different things any director factors in when casting (like if certain actors make for a believable family, etc.), and yet of course at the end of the day I still ended up with a list of un-cast actors I couldn’t help but stare at and think, “Oh, but that person’s fantastic!” while also recognizing there just wasn’t a place for them in this show.
For me, the list of desired collaborations is always longer than the list of people I actually get to collaborate with on any given show, so, with an enormous desire to celebrate just how much talent we really have in this Bay Area theater scene of ours, here are 16 incredible folks from The Crucible callbacks that I didn’t cast this time around, which again still leaves out a whole lot of other great people who I saw that day. Next time, my friends. And in the meantime, to all my fellow directors, snatch these folks up while you can. They’re amongst the best of the best.
Sam Bertken. I’ve gotten to know Sam pretty well over the last year since I first met him at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, and he’s both a delightful person and a delightful actor. His strengths lie in physical comedy and exciting, larger-than-life characters, and so he’s perfect for stylized works, broad comedies and performances pieces. He played Tranio for me when I directed Taming of the Shrew this past year and he’s very easy to work with, very dedicated, and he comes into the room with a lot of ideas to contribute towards building a character. He also takes direction exceptionally well, pulling back and toning down when you need him to, opening up and making a character explode on stage when you let him run loose. He almost stole the show every night of our run and yet he’s undeniably a total team player. He’ll be playing Peter Pan this fall at Custom Made and I kind of can’t wait in an embarrassingly fanboy way.
Kat Bushnell. Kat and I have a long history of working together, ever since I cast her back in 2011 in my production of Giant Bones, the auditions for which were my first introduction to the bundle of warm support and talent that is Kat Bushnell. Funny, smart, friendly- and she can sing!- Kat Bushnell is a triple threat who pulls off one of the best British accents of any actress I’ve seen in the Bay and she works hard in any role you put her in, from minor character to lead: a perfect ensemble member (which was essential in Giant Bones). She’s also a great cold reader- playwrights take note!- and a lot of the work I’ve done with her has been script in hand because Kat’s good at making strong, immediate choices and she has a lovely, melodic speaking voice that makes all your lines sound good, hence making her a staple of the SF Olympians festival since year one.
Ben Calabrese. Never saw this guy before Crucible auditions, I sincerely hope to get a chance to work with him at some point in the future. An able reader and a jovial participant, I kept having him read partly because I enjoyed what he brought out in other actors and he had a really nice, open-to-anything vibe that I found myself enjoying regardless of what role I had him read for. Lots of energy and enthusiasm, my guess is he’s a total team player- you’d have to be to endure five hours of callbacks and still have a smile on your face.
Ashley Cowan. Ashley has played a lead for me twice now and I have to say, she is one dedicated actor and you can be sure, if you cast her, that she will work incredibly hard. She’s also a friendly, pro-team presence backstage, perpetually positive and good at rallying the troops even when you’re marching through that deathly terrible dress rehearsal where nothing goes right. She turns in thoughtful, layered performances with a particular penchant for anti-ingenues, those young women roles characterized by being just outside the normal, run-of-the-mill heroine variety, smarter and quirkier than the girl next door. As Viola in my Twelfth Night she had a heart-breaking reunion scene with her Sebastian that brought tears to the audience’s eyes every single time but she’s probably better known throughout the Bay Area as a comic actress and for very good reasons: she’s genuinely funny and has a dry, deadpan delivery that kills when aimed to do so.
Laura Domingo. A passionate, fiery performer, Laura does hysteria and agony like nobody else, but she’s also got a sexy, seductive side that revealed itself during the Olympians Festival last year when she played a femme fatale in a noire style play by Colin Johnson. In reality, she’s a sweet person who has been game for everything we’ve given her at the Olympians Festival and I love when she turns up again and again for consideration- demonstrating a positive, open attitude that characterizes the best variety of performer. One day, Laura, I just know we’re going to do a kick-ass show together.
Matt Gunnison. Matt and I have done four full productions together and a play I wrote has, what I think, is the perfect leading role for him (now if only I could find a producer!). Talk about an actor with range, Matt can do funny, Matt can do scary, and Matt can do sympathetic, and in my ideal role for him he gets to do all of that and more in one night. He has an elastic body and an incredibly expressive face that evokes tremendous responses from audiences and he’s both absolutely solid and reliable while also being the sort of performer who can, when asked, surprise the hell out of you. On top of that he’s arguably the nicest guy in the Bay Area theater scene, soft-spoken and gently witty, astute and supportive and 100% there when you need him. He’s a cornerstone actor, the kind of presence that elevates your production both backstage and onstage, and it’s criminal that he’s not hugely famous.
April Green. Seriously, this woman is such a powerhouse and I never saw her or knew her name before these auditions and now I want to see whatever she gets cast in next because I sense she tears it up like few others can. She brought a deeply emotional weight to everything she read for and she has a grace and a kindness to her that I found very moving, especially for a cold read. I worry she’s gonna read this and think I’m a stalker. I swear, I’m not. Just a freshly converted fan to who was, for me, the best new face in this truly epic assortment of actors.
Ryan Hayes. My longest running collaborator in the Bay Area, Ryan was in the very first show I ever directed in the Bay Area (Edward II) and we’ve probably done ten shows together since, not to mention a ton of readings and other theatrical collaborations. An amazingly versatile and dedicated performer, Ryan is one of those people who can play a wide variety of roles, from over-the-top to incredibly subtle, and often times accessing both extremes of his range in the same evening. He loves big characters but he’s excellent at solid and subtle ones too and when he’s in your cast you can rely on him coming through on all fronts, being one of the first to get off book, and ready to lend a hand with any element of the production. He’s a team player and a team leader, and he just gets better and easier to work with as time goes on.
Neil Higgins. Neil can do flamboyant, acidic wit like nobody else and, interestingly enough, his other forte is charmingly insecure everymen. He has exceptionally good comic timing and the unique ability to go from brittle to endearing at the drop of a hat. Backstage he’s a solid addition to the mix, sure to make people laugh in the rehearsal process, always able and willing to buckle down and get work done when the time has come. During the production of Measure for Measure I cast in him (and in which he stole the show every night) he destroyed a bottle of beer mid-performance and totally made it work without missing a beat. It was pretty legendary.
Sharon Huff Robinson. I only got to know Sharon a little bit through callbacks but she made a very good impression on me, striking me as a smart woman with a great sense of humor about herself and the whole show business thing, combining that with some really truly solid acting skills. What I loved the most about her audition is that she’s so obviously a strong, self-assured woman who wouldn’t put up with all the crap Miller subjects his female characters to in The Crucible. Side note: she kind of looks like mid-1980s Carrie Fisher.
Heather Kellogg. Yet another smart, enthusiastic and courageous actress, Heather always makes super daring choices during auditions that are a nice contrast to her very girl-next-door look and vibe. She can do a thoroughly believable Irish accent, has a good command of stylized language and classical text, and she’s at the perfect place to play a number of different ingénue roles, from flighty and delightful, to the “guarding secrets and plans” variety, to the brave and plucky kind. I kind of want to see her play Anne Shirley in a stage adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, and if you know how much I love Anne of Green Gables, you realize this is no joking matter.
Brian Martin. Of all the actors I have known over an extended period of time, Brian has evolved the most. He was always very watchable, a cute guy with a very natural acting style that makes him an excellent choice for modern theater, but in the last few years I have been using him for classical productions and he’s just as competent and comfortable with verse and poetry. He works hard, he takes himself and the art very seriously, but he’s never a wet blanket about anything and he has no ego at all, making him a great addition to the backstage environment of the show (seriously, is there anyone in the world who doesn’t like Brian?). He’s at the perfect age to play lots of male romantic leads and he’s one of the most non-awkward stage kissers I’ve ever directed. Seriously, he’s made out with somebody in every single play I’ve cast him in, and nobody ever complains about it.
Theresa Miller. Speaking of inarguably lovable, Theresa Miller is another person I think we can all agree is just, well… utterly likable. Blessed with an inarguably endearing smile and a penchant for feckless comedy, my favorite roles I’ve seen her in are the ones where someone has noticed just how terrifying Theresa is when cast as evil. Evil Theresa is truly scary, because when she says horrible things there’s still an undertone of sweetness to her that somehow makes it just that much more psychotic sounding. She also nails victimized characters, at least partly because you never want to see anything bad happen to Theresa. A few years ago I produced a play she was in called Oily Replies where she played a kind of lost film noire ingénue and moments when the detective would manhandle her you really just wanted to punch him. A truly charming and dedicated actress who generates immediate emotional loyalty from audiences (when not creeping them out), I can’t recommend her more.
Allison Page. This just in: if you don’t know Allison Page, you need to, and now is your chance because I predict she will be beyond big time relatively soon. Everything about her is star quality. She’s funny, she’s smart, she’s sensitive, she’s articulate, she can take direction well and she likes to push herself to do new things and go places she hasn’t gone before. She’s a delight backstage- I thoroughly believe she has been blessed with the remarkable ability to be able to get along with virtually anybody- and audiences fall in love with her approximately 35 seconds after she first walks out on stage. Jennifer Lawrence whatever, Allison is the perfect ingénue for modern theater because she nails quirky without ever being precious or contrived and she’s also got a tough core that lends her characters a nice edge and some gravitas. She’s very beautiful in a throw-back to the Golden Age of Hollywood way, and her ability to knock both indie heroine roles and comedic love interest parts out of the park makes her usable in a variety of shows and contexts.
Jessica Rudholm. Ultra-professional backstage and a thoughtful, invested performer, the most unique and startling thing about Jessica is that she packs, into a small and delicate body, an unbelievable amount of power and strength. She has dancer and movement training that allows her to do physically astounding things on stage and her voice is deep, smoky and resonate. She’s so striking on stage she almost demands exceptional parts of the Queen, Sorceress, God Incarnate variety, and in the past she’s played unusual characters like Feste in Twelfth Night and the Moon in my play Twins because there is an ethereal, mesmerizing quality to her that allows her to pull off those kinds of roles without the tiniest bit of affectation. It’s just Jessica doing what she does best, namely being the most riveting presence in the room.
Paul Stout. I kind of feel like Paul can do almost any kind of character you throw at him, and is the apex of that solid, dependable performer you can use in a wide variety of roles, always knowing that whatever he’s been given he’ll make it a vital part of your production with strong and compelling storytelling. I’ve particularly liked Paul in lovable dickhead roles, though I think my favorite performance of his is still the first one I saw him in, as a drunk, pathetic factory foreman in Audience at Theater Pub. Paul nailed that perfect balance between irritating and impossible to not feel sorry for, and he repeatedly makes difficult characters accessible, show after show.
So there you go. Sixteen actors I won’t be using for my next show but you absolutely should. And you know what? I could list another 16, and still not have listed everyone at these call-backs who was worthy of note (which again, was pretty much everyone). What it really comes down to is this: there are a lot of things we can stand to improve in the Bay Area theater scene, but it’s important to also remember there are a lot of things which are right, which are un-beatable, and there’s nothing like five hours of watching talented, passionate performers perform to remind you that a lot of the good stuff about doing work out here starts with the people you get the chance to work with. Someone you love not on this list? Then by all means, tell us about them! Tell the world! Help open a door for them and by doing so continue to grow our scene into a better, brighter, more exciting place to be.
Stuart Bousel attends an abnormally large number of auditions over the course of any given year and does his best to pay really close attention to all of them. That said, he won’t be casting any shows for quite some time in the forsee-able future. Yes, it’s screwing with his brain. He hopes to one day talk a producer into funding his dream production of Clive Barker’s Colossus, in which he would be able to cast literally everybody who was at the Crucible auditions, and then some. You would want to see this show. It would be amazing.